Sunday, 11 November 2018

National Dog Day and Pet Care and Protection in Japan

Japanese love giving each day a special moniker. Today (November 11th) alone, for example, has 62 separate titles (listed here) which include cheese day, sock day, noodle day, and solo travel day. November has a particularly large number because the numbers 11 (ichi and ichi) resemble the word "good" (ii =いい) in Japanese; most of the days have been created by companies as a marketing gimmick to promote their particular product. In this post, I want to introduce National Dog Day or inu no hi (犬の日)on November 1st. This was created by a group of pet food companies in 1987; three "ones" in a row resemble the sound Japanese perceive dogs make when they bark: namely wan wan wan (see here for a full table of onomatopoeic animal sounds). For Japanese, the notion that dogs go "woof" (as English speakers believe) is clearly preposterous and they usually find this highly amusing!

In Japan, dog lovers have traditionally outnumbered cat lovers with the most popular breed being the native shiba (柴犬). However, in recent years, smaller "cuter" dogs that require less space and minimal walking (and who shed less hair) have become more popular: in 2015 the top three most popular breeds were (1) toy poodles, (2) chihuahuas, and (3) miniature dachshunds (shiba dropping to number five). More significantly, the number of cats (9.53 million) over took the number of dogs (8.92 million) for the first time last year. Interestingly, although cats have always been more popular than dogs in the UK, the numbers are very similar to Japan, with an estimated population of 8.9 million dogs and 11.1 million cats (though the percentage of pet owners is obviously much higher because the UK population is smaller).

As the graph shows, the number of dogs have dropped quite dramatically over the last ten years or so. A big reason for this is that the 1973 Animal Care and Protection Law (dōbutsu aigo hō =動物愛護法) has undergone a series of revisions in recent years, specifically in 2005 and 2012, which introduced tough regulations for unscrupulous breeders and stricter rules for dog sales. As I have written before, the concept of animal welfare and rights have been woefully under-developed in Japan in the past, but recently this has been changing. Indeed, in the past dogs were often kept outside in a kennel as guard dogs and training was minimal; food would typically be human leftovers such as miso soup poured over rice (known as neko-mam'ma). Today dogs are more likely to be treated like children, dressed up in fancy clothes and spoiled with expensive food and treats (there were actually more cats and dogs - 18.5 million - than kids - 15.7m - in 2017). Indeed, pet products, including insurance have become big business in Japan.

The legal and social changes described above have contributed to a dramatic fall in the number of dogs and cats euthanised (gassed) at public health centres (hokenjo =保健所), from almost 300,000 (mainly cats) in 2008 to a record low 43,227 in 2017. More and more abandoned dogs (hogoken =保護犬) are being adopted by new owners, mostly thanks to the work of NPOs and other organisations that provide refuges and re-homing programmes. One well-known organisation is ARK (Animal Refuge Kansai), which was founded in 1990 by a British woman, Elizabeth Oliver, and came into its own after the 1995 Kobe earthquake when many pets were abandoned. We have tried to do our bit, and our dog Jaz (Jasmin) was one such abandoned pet; when found she was severely mal-nourished and her ears were ragged and torn. Now, when I take her for walks she gets admiring glances and calls of kawaii ("how cute!") and gets particular praise for being slim, white, and long-legged. Not infrequently, fellow walkers will follow-up by saying "just like her owner" which brings gails of laughter. Making comments about another person's body parts - "high" nose, long legs/fingers, "small" face - is very much socially acceptable in Japan, since it is categorised as "praise" (whether the recipient regards it as such or not). But such social mores are a topic for another day - for now I'll leave you with one more picture of Jaz looking rather content.